Spice girl

11Feb15

I thought I’d found my soulmate, I really did. This time, I thought, we’ll be together forever. You know when it just floods your whole mind so you can’t think of anything or anyone else? It colours every part of your life? It seems to fill your chest and make your heart flutter? Yeah, well, by the time that happened, on Monday, I thought enough is enough and went to the doctor. Yep, she said, ‘that is one lovely big chest infection you’ve got there’, and sent me off for antibiotics and a steroid inhaler. Tomorrow will mark our fifth-week anniversary, but I doubt we’ll make it to six. And as with the end of every liaison, I am relieved it’s over.

Still, I can’t be too negative. A good relationship teaches you things about yourself that you didn’t know. It should open up new aspects of your personality and encourage you to try new things. I’ve learned, for example, that if I go introspective, bowed down with the dreariness of life and have a cough and headache for five weeks, I should seek help. As for trying new things, well, that really has been a revelation. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…. GINGER. A miracle of a root, a soother of aches and warmer of bodies. A delicious, invigorating, comforting cure-all that should be on every menu.

See, when I first fell ill, in the first week in January (Christ, was it really that long ago?), a friend suggested mugs of hot water, slice of lemon, whizzed-up chunk of root ginger. I couldn’t be arsed to get the food processor down from the hall cupboard, whence it was banished, unused, soon after it was purchased with fond daydreams of making quince paste, so I just cut up the ginger into julienne strips, poured on the water, drank it down and ate the ginger afterwards with a spoon.

A lovely, warming brew, I thought, antiviral, brings on a bit of a sweat, will help fight lurgy, plus it’s delicious and oddly energizing. Actually, I thought it would probably have bugger-all effect on my system but just tasted nice, until I had a cup just before bed and couldn’t sleep for hours, despite being bone-weary with coldybug. Then a few days later I had too much of it again and gave myself nausea and the runs. Golly, went my thinking, that really is quite the stimulant. And then, astonishingly, after about a week, I noticed that my legs had stopped stiffening up and aching every time I sat down for longer than 10 minutes.

This problem had been worsening over the last year, until the end of the Cotswold walk last autumn when, although I hardly admitted it to myself and certainly didn’t tell anyone else, I thought I’d have to give up walking. Stretching, massages, hot baths – nothing eased the aches for longer than an hour or so. Until The Unlooked-For Miracle, I’d had absolutely no idea ginger could do anything to muscles. And it can’t be placebo because I was concentrating too hard on detecting any effect on my noisily orchestral thorax, rather than anything further south. But one day in the office I stood up to fetch something from the printer and noticed that I hadn’t needed to trigger ignition with the words oof or ow. A minute’s mental wander back in time and I realized that legs had been gip-free for, what, days? Dunno exactly because all attention was focused elsewhere. So, having out-and-backed to the printer, transported by celebratory grands jetés, I turned to Great-aunt Internet for advice. Yup, she said, ginger is totes amaze for muscle recovery and joint aches, and a lot better for you than ibuprofen.

Inspired by this intelligence, I have started walloping into the turmeric and cinnamon too (delicious in porridge with honey stirred through it and milk) and am hoping I have fortified myself for a summer of walking. Still and all, I ain’t gone totally natural. When the chips are down, when your thorax sounds like a youth orchestra tuning up and the world has become bleached of meaning, antibiotics and steroids are your only man.


Right, division-of-labour time: I gloat; you admire. Why’s that – apart from the usual day-to-day admirability that I manifest? Because I have completed my tax return! Not filed it or paid any money, mark you, but completed it. And the feeling is exactly as the ads promised: one of lightness, smugness and glee. Whoever came up with that marketing scheme is a genius because not only is it true, unlike many marketing ideas (how does one recognise a feeling of being sooo Money Supermarket, for example?), it also takes something life-draining and turns it wholeheartedly upbeat.

This is a leaf from a book that could have been usefully thumbed by the young men who turned up at the house on Sunday. Irritatingly, their knock coincided with the imminent climax of Obesity: A Year to Save My Life USA, which I was using as a backdrop to soothing the morning aches of cold virus slash mild hangover. It was a double episode, nearly two hours of a fat bloke called Mikey being shouted at by a buff bloke called Gerry and I couldn’t believe I was about to miss the grand unveiling of half the man Mikey used to be.

The opening front door revealed a chilly-looking pair of skinny evangelicals. No idea what church they came from but the leaflet one of them held out was as stripped of joy as the reps were of flesh. The cover featured a line drawing of a woman with her face in her hands beneath the legend ‘When Will The Suffering End?’. Sorry, give me a second to regroup here. You’ve knocked on the door of a smiling stranger to ask them ‘When will the suffering end?’ Really? Why not have a wee into my kettle while you’re here? I read somewhere that those Nigerian spam mails are meant to be ludicrously obviously fake so that only really thick, suggestible people respond – the ones most likely to wire their savings to a crook in Nairobi. By that process, this church only wanted the most depressed, frightened, browbeaten types, which isn’t really for me. Balloons, kittens, a cartoon penguin wearing a sombrero, then yeah, sign me up. But face in hands, crushed by life, yearning for death? Hmm, not so much.

So, lads, next time you have a branch meeting, why not suggest revising your outreach material? Because when the tax office sounds more fun than your church, it’s time to ask some searching questions. Or at least get better branding.


Winter clean

12Jan15

Any year that doesn’t start with winter vomiting bug is all right by me. In fact, Christmas may have been a sparkling wonderland of roasting meats and children’s laughter in other houses, but not in mine. Instead of days of enervating enforced inactivity, mine was spent helping my father get his flat repainted at the behest of the landlord, aka smoothing ruffled feathers of two elderly gents. ‘But why does he want it painted in the middle of winter?’ went my father’s not unreasonable wail; ‘I’ve got someone in and he can only do it during university holidays,’ came the cogently argued response. This exchange, which has been repeated with only small variations since October, elicited sympathetic clucks to whoever was addressing me as I lugged wardrobes, hauled bookcases, hoovered ropes of cobwebs and scrubbed down walls.

The lanky painter, a delightfully otherworldly teen, turned up two days late and made up the time by doing a terrible job. But he spiked our guns with smiling biddability, listening to opera and displaying not the slightest inkling of his incompetence. Bless. He only did about 1.5 days’ work but the landlord is delighted that some of the flat has been done; my father because he hopes that will be enough to leave him in peace, and the undergrad, pfft, he pocketed a few quid and got away with murder.

Once that excitement was over, I put on the same dusty jeans and jumper and went to work on the little house. My father heroically returned the favour, carrying a stepladder up the street; tactfully dialling down my more extravagant ideas and replacing the bathroom light switch. Two days earlier I’d smashed the whole fitting by teetering on tiptoe on the edge of the bath and letting it slip from outstretched fingers onto the tiled floor – but replacing that is a whole other day’s wrong size of screwdriver.


Puppy love

09Dec14

‘Oh Christ, where’s the little fucker gone now?’ That howl is the sound of my usually non-sweary father taking a puppy for its second – and probably last – ever walk. It was good to hear my father revisit his National Service days.

We’d started aglow with virtue and good cheer, helping out a local lady who’d recently been felled by a stroke. Her daughter, in a bizarre logic-fail, decided that what her largely immobile and convalescent mother needed while living alone was an un-house-trained puppy. Not a very big puppy, certainly, but one that, like all puppies, needs to be walked. This is where my dog-loving father entered the frame, about a week ago, offering to take the boisterous scrap and trot it round a field, on a lead. The hound, a shih-tzu, is only four months old and had clearly never been taken for a saunter before. It took him a while to get the hang of it, but some kind of doggie instinct seemed to wake up and he had a lovely time. Last weekend, buoyed by that earlier success and bulked out with another human and the much loved Rosie who’s about 12 years the houndlet’s senior, my father felt the pack was big enough to take Bailey out properly.

Bailey was not singing from the same sheet, quickly earning the descriptor that my father sent rolling around the valley, along with some other fruity terms that made me want to snort and text my brother. The dog couldn’t understand kissing gates – fair enough, they’re tricky if don’t understand reaching your goal by any but the most direct route. But he also wouldn’t go through a five-bar gate that was opened wide and, judging by the mud and pats, regularly let herds of Friesians go lumbering through. That was when it got really shouty.

The sight of that tiny dog, standing in the middle of the gateway, refusing to follow us and running away every time either of us went near him, became less pitiful and more annoying with every minute that passed. The sun sank lower in the sky. Rosie wandered off and found a half-rotted rabbit’s leg to chew unnoticed. I wondered how bad I would really feel telling the owner her dog had run away (answer: not in the slightest).

We finally caught him and, when Rosie had finished exploiting our inattention by rolling in badger shit, we tied the two dogs together by one lead, giving them about a yard of slack between them, and let them trot along happily, Rosie showing Bailey how to get through gates and Bailey being gentlemanly about the unholy stink pulsing off his new friend’s fur. Both in disgrace, they travelled the mile and a half home in the boot. Bailey was given a warm bath and had the mud washed off with posh shampoo by his owner; Rosie got Fairy Liquid and the water butt.


The community spirit is welling within my breast these days. It’s always been there, of course, but lately, and in two locations, It’s become what oil prospectors might call a gusher. The people around my little houseen and an old friend from primary school who has returned to the village and moved in a few doors down are taking up much of my attention in Wiltshire, and then in London, where people are more circumspect, I have been meeting neighbours the traditional way: under cover of the misdirected parcel.

That’s how I met Colin from across the road, a relationship that has been reinforced by my landlord, whom I suspect of having a slight boy crush on Colin, particularly after the panicky phone call – ‘Colin! Thank God! Have you got a small angle-grinder?’ – that resulted in such damage to the kitchen floor. Anyway, the first gossamer threads of acquaintance were spun after Colin took in a parcel of mine a few months back. I returned the next morning with a gift of plums (themselves part of a gift from Cyril four doors down) and that, along with DIY SOS, was enough to seal the deal.

Last night I passed the favour on by dealing with four ENORMOUS packages that had been delivered to us on account of next door being out. The lightest was 19kg, and addressed to a ‘Harry’ so I went round and left a note. No sign of anyone, but as Tomasz Schafernaker finished telling the nation to wrap up warm, there were telltale thumpings through the wall. Round I beetled once more. The door was answered by a larky young sprig in tracky bottoms and a vest cut in such a way that an evening at the gym was in the front of my mind. I explained that this ‘Harry’ was welcome to collect the parcels but as the heaviest was 27kg, I couldn’t help. Not a problem – suddenly an even more strapping gym bunny filled the doorway and blocked the light. ‘Oh, my,’ I may have squeaked. And then, dammit, yet another vested vision materialized, this one from the kitchen. Now, I’m not really a fan of the ripped gym-boy, and I have long outgrown the 20-something, but heavens to Betsy and lawks a mercy, sometimes you just get caught by surprise.

Off I scuttled, down their path and up mine, having ordered the-lads-too-young-to-remember-Communism to put on shoes because they’d catch their deaths (oh, well done me). And round they came, like a load of marines, in their straining singlets, to pick up the heavy packages and present me with a bottle of wine. It was dark enough to hide my rosy glow but not dark enough to hide the simper. Still, at least I didn’t giggle. Oh God, I didn’t giggle, did I?


Modern manners

14Nov14

Now, my question today is, is it ever ok to call ‘Please, please, for the love of God stop singing’ along a row of changing cubicles to the songbird three doors down? He was obviously a happy chap after his swim, and why wouldn’t he be? I often feel like having a bit of a trill after a dip, but therein lies the difference: I don’t. I hum under my breath. I might be swept away by the swelling strains of an orchestra, or soaring high over the descants of the organ in St Paul’s, but crucially, the thunder is inaudible to everyone who doesn’t live in my head. Anyway, naturally I didn’t say anything at the pool, or at least, not at a volume any higher than the one I’d set for my heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of Danny Boy that was currently unspooling UNKNOWN TO EVERYONE AROUND ME.

It must also be pointed out that the quality of my performance suffers with every extra notch of volume, as anyone who has stood near me in church will attest, so it’s not just selflessness, it’s mortification that keeps me silent. Not so nobly forbearing after all, then.

Another conundrum tangled my wires last weekend. It was as I was helping my father carry some large trunks (packing, not swimming) down two narrow flights of stairs furnished with an awkward bend at each end. The trunks weren’t crushingly heavy, on the flat at least, but the question of whether to obey my 78-year-old father’s instruction to ‘Let go; I’ve got it’ when he’s three stairs below you and the trunk is made of steel and threatening to toboggan unchecked down to street level threw up some urgent-feeling quibbles.


Floorless logic

05Nov14

Boooo, here comes winter. Boooo. The weekend of recuperation in Hereford was wonderful, though I must remember in future that I am useless the first day back – there was a lot of wanting to read the paper and drink tea and stare into space. This was thrown into sharp relief by the host’s hyper-busy cousin, who was endlessly up ladders, replacing lights, pruning roses and walking dogs, and by the two children who were swimming, running half-marathons, going to parties, playing badminton and entertaining friends.

Since then I have been walking a few times, sometimes in Ireland (Wicklow and Kilkenny) and last weekend in Henley. Again I overestimated what we could achieve in the hours of daylight and so we cut slightly short our wondrous walk through sunny Buckinghamshire beechwoods and floppety-rabbit-nibbled valleys. The route was up for modification anyway, as just before lunch we found ourselves directed towards the guns of a pheasant shoot, who had at the very moment of our approach wounded but not killed a hen pheasant, which bounced and flapped and bled for a long time before finally expiring. This was not calculated to mollify my 30-years-a-vegetarian friend, who responded with loud conversational potshots at the shooting party – ‘You going to be able to eat all those, are you?’ – while spent buckshot pattered down around us. ‘Let’s run over there shouting “Votes for women!”’ was her vintage suggestion, but allowed herself to be steered away up the hill, out of range and into the woods.

This, oddly enough, was restful compared to the state of the homestead. On my return from Ireland a few days earlier, I reported a flashing light on the boiler and nothing but icy cold water from the taps. The landlord and I shared one of those Airport 77-style phone chats – ‘Can you see a silver pipe with a black tap on it? Ok, turn the tap 90 degrees. What’s the pressure gauge saying?’ – but to no avail. There was a leak somewhere in the house.

Our noble landlord arrived that evening, having only just finished up a three-week maintenance programme on the house, God love him, which was meant to leave him free of landlording nonsense in time to start his new job. No such luck. I was having friends over for dinner and what had threatened to be a slightly stressful evening quickly turned hilarious with the news that the leak was probably under the kitchen floor and had to be tracked down immediately. Ten minutes later I was slicing potatoes on the hall table while Colin from across the road was on his knees by the cooker gripping an angle-grinder as it screamed through slate. The friends arrived, graciously consumed a half-teaspoon of kitchen floor with their Spanish omelette, and we sat in the front room drinking wine and chatting. A sudden silence from next door was finally broken by the landlord’s voice. ‘Shit. It’s not under the floor; it’s in the wall.’ Which called for another handsome bumper of red and heartfelt thanksgiving for my brilliant, selfless, lovely-chap landlord.

You can scour all the etiquette books you like and I daresay you won’t find it recommends offering a weekend guest stone-cold water in which to wash, a hellishly early start on Saturday and a skitter through gunfire, but actually, in the context of Colin and his screaming angle-grinder, it was a picnic.




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